‘Afflictions & Departures: Essays’ by Madeline Sonik

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Jess Woolford

Madeline Sonik refers to this collection of personal essays as a “fracture,” a term she has coined to describe a series of short, connected autobiographical pieces that disrupts linear notions of time. Sonik plays with time by linking the happenings of her own life, starting with her own conception and moving through her trying adolescence, to events in the wider world.

For example, in “First Passage,” Sonik’s incantatory initial essay, she evokes her conception by imagining that, “[My parents] fling open their cabin door, teeter at the threshold, fall upon the soft double bed… It is 1959, a year before birth control pills are made available to women, twenty-three years before the AIDS epidemic makes condoms accessible everywhere and politically correct.”  This phrasing implies further fractures: Sonik’s conception is unintended and perhaps unwelcome, an impression that is reinforced when she notes,

The night I am born, [my father] will be in Milwaukee.  My mother will curse him as I take my first breath. She will damn him, every time she remembers how she had to struggle into a taxi all alone, in the middle of the night, damp footed, with amniotic fluid staining her precious alligator shoes. Often, over the course of the next fourteen years, she will know regret.

Sonik’s mother marries her father even though “she is so frequently in love that she’s uncertain how long she can expect it to last,” and her father sacrifices his war-time passion for a beautiful Korean woman in exchange for socially-sanctioned marriage to Sonik’s white mother. It is by these actions that they begin to fracture their own lives.  Upon his death from cancer at age forty-five, Sonik’s father “bequeaths a chasm in his history, a vacuity which my speculations will endlessly attempt to fill,” and Sonik’s mother widens the void by giving away his golden smoking jacket, a gift from his true love, and then burning the pictures and letters from “that woman.”

Perhaps Sonik in part invokes historical events as a way to fill in the blanks, to prop up a personal world that is cracked and crazed. Saddled with a mother who is “unable to love” and a father who becomes a violent alcoholic, Sonik’s compelling essays pull us along to witness her child-self moving from “the insulated precincts of youth” to a greater consciousness of the gaps and losses in her life and in our collective life.

Sonik constantly tries to make sense of the world as in this passage in which she considers Rubens’s Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus: “The word rape was unfamiliar to me, but it seemed likely it was some form of the verb rip, and the two naked women in the picture bore this out, as there were strips of fabric beneath them…” The reader cannot help but note resonances with Sonik’s own experience of her parents ripping her to shreds when they concur that she is “useless as tits on a board” and when her father tells her that “he and my mother wished I’d never been born, and… that he loved the dog that he’d just abandoned more than he’d ever loved me.”

This savaging is self-inflicted too: Sonik’s petite mother eventually balloons to more than 200 pounds and her father’s drinking shatters his life (and the life of his family) while his colon cancer emaciates him so that his face is little more than a skull, his existence little more than pain.

Not surprisingly, the body becomes an uncomfortable place for Sonik as well.  Of her first boyfriend she writes, “He has a moustache that scratches my face. I try to ignore it.  I try to move outside of my body, to escape the discomfort, to observe our kissing from a distance, where I can see myself as someone different, someone who’s not so insecure.” Moving a step beyond separating from herself, Sonik attempts to erase herself by avoiding her boyfriend’s many dislikes including “gym shoes, midi skirts, red lipstick, ponytails, runs in nylon stockings,” and modeling herself on him to the extent that “I make his likes my likes: hot dogs, baked beans, the colour black.”

When her father dies, Sonik “feels as though “an arctic snow has settled, as if I’ve fallen so deeply asleep that I’ll never wake again. In the years to come, I will consider all that coalesced to darkness—the gully into which I fell… and the way my mind and body stayed alive by shutting down.”

Thankfully, she eventually revives enough to acquire a writing table and a typewriter and to envision “some story [finding] its way through the tips of my fingers.” The story that Sonik—now a poet, novelist, children’s author and professor in the University of Victoria’s writing program—shares is by turns dark and poignant, tender and hopeful, and one that anchors her to the world, in which we still suffer despite our historical progress.

Anvil | 224 pages |  $20.00 | paper | ISBN #978-1897535677




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Jess Woolford

Jess Woolford reads and writes memoir in Winnipeg.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty

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